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Millions of Indians go to polls



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NEW DELHI, India (CNN) -- Threats of vioence and calls for a boycott didn't stop millions of Indians from casting their votes in the first stages of a parliamentary election.

Turnout appeared to be slightly lower than in the 1999 election, but it was still estimated that 80 million people voted on Tuesday.

More than 400,000 forces have been deployed throughout the country where as many as 650 million people will vote over the next three weeks.

Some violence was reported as one policeman was killed and 13 people were wounded in the disputed northern state of Kashmir, but elsewhere officials said voting went fairly smoothly.

In Kashmir alone, 7,000 security personnel were added to the 65,000 normally deployed in the region.

Voting is staggered over three weeks to allow people to cast their votes for a new government and prime minister.

Opinion polls indicate Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's ruling Hindu nationalist-led coalition is expected to easily win a new five-year term.

But the main opposition Congress party, led by Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, has closed the gap in recent weeks.

Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party has dropped its hardline Hindu stance for this election and is instead campaigning on a platform of strong economic growth.

The 79-year-old Vajpayee is seeking a fourth stint and third term as prime minister. He argues he has earned another five years in office because, he says, he has turned the economy around.

"There is regard for India in the world today. There is food in our warehouses. There is such an image of India today that we can look to the world with confidence," Vajpayee said at a weekend rally.

Indeed, India's financial markets have soared in the past 12 months. The rupee is on a four-year high and analysts say the market is keen to see the BJP returned to power to push through with more aggressive reforms.

But the Congress says Vajpayee's economic changes have benefited only a small minority and more needs to be done.

The Congress has also long accused the BJP of bias against the nation's 120 million Muslims and will be hoping the coalition will fail to win a majority.

Even so, polls show the coalition is likely to be the largest group in parliament and as such would be able to attract smaller parties in order to gain a majority.

Past elections in India have been violent with clashes between rival political groups and insurgent attacks.

vstory.india.poster.afp.jpg
Vajpayee (top image) is seeking a fourth stint as leader.

Sporadic violence has broken out this year despite thousands of soldiers and paramilitary forces guarding polling stations and ballot boxes.

On Sunday night, two top politicians from the ruling coalition survived apparent attempts on their lives in Andhra Pradesh and Bihar states.

Meanwhile, Muslim militants in Kashmir and leftist guerrillas in the impoverished eastern and southern parts of the country urged people to stay away from the election, saying it was not a solution to their grievances.

The mood in Kashmir seemed to be more relaxed, at least partly due to improved relations between Indian and Pakistan, which both lay claim to the region, CNN's New Delhi Bureau Chief Satinder Bindra said.

The final day of polling ends on May 10 with counting and election results set for May 13.

-- CNN New Delhi Bureau Chief Satinder Bindra contributed to this report.


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